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Vol. 2, Issue 1
November 16, 1999
Pixel Obscura:

The Metropolis Haunted by Speed

by Josh Vasquez

“The multi-storey car parks - the top decks are empty in the evening”
-J.G. Ballard

The art of subtlety is one of dissection. It is the killing blow delivered when no one is watching, a strike under which the blood not only blossoms but runs in augural patterns. Like dissection, subtlety is a learning tool. You cut something up to watch “the gears” spinning, to observe what is otherwise an intensely private ritual made up of little movements that seem to hint at the secrets of an otherwise infinite universe. The subtle art is the alchemical one, an appreciation of hidden truths waiting to be revealed by the manipulation of oracular elements. Little mysteries are perhaps the greatest ones for they are forever pointing fingers down roads that only lead to other roads, a beautifully untranslatable text of intersections.

Sadly, subtlety is lacking in most traditional art forms, let alone in the hyperbolically grotesque melodramas of the vast majority of video game cinematics. It’s because of this lack, however, that deviations stand out with such vehemence. Often these singular pieces are paired with non-narrative games as if the demands of story and coherence along a linear trajectory cripple the delicate touch. A narrative has to be maintained some how, and the inherently limited nature of video game cinematics too often results in a colorful procession of stick figures endlessly tortured by cliché. The non-narrative game is liberated from any plot considerations, allowed to roam into more esoteric territory.

It could be that because there is no overarching “story” anything that these games do comes across as surreal and pleasantly free of an agenda (pure expression for its own sake) and while this may be true, the accomplishment is not diminished. Abstract art, though abstract, can still be judged, although admittedly by a different set of criteria. The same can be said for these non-narrative games. In some ways non-narrative subtlety, the ability to create a story where before there was none, is more impressive than working in the traditional forms of myth making. The cinematics of Wipeout 3, a new racing game from the people at Psygnosis, walk the fine line between the formal control of the coldly beautiful, detached image and the subtle exploration of a mysterious “narrative”...and they do so brilliantly.

The first image is that of a stylized “child,” a figure built of blue, red and white lines whose middle section revolves with a hospitalic regularity. Next a sign appears celebrating “the designers republic” followed by a metallic hued title: “Intro Sequence = Start”...and then the scene shifts.


We are in a vast city, silent save the droning hive like buzz surrounding the preparations for a mighty race. A cyclopean balloon hovers above the buildings, looking something like those Thanksgiving Day parade monstrosities. It leers down on the track; a face looking like it was borrowed from a cartoon made back at the beginning of the century. As we see this, a gibbering sound can be heard in the distance, muffled and flattened, rendered alien by the broken tongue of ancient speakers. Are we hearing a voice? Is there life somewhere in this empty city? For there are no people to be seen, no visible life, only the incessant rhythm of animated machines...like the massive advertising signs rotating high above. A countdown reaches 0, and the race begins. One image is repeated throughout the montage: pieces slowly spin in the air, colorful fragments frozen in recollection of some disaster. By the end of the sequence we come to understand the significance of this cryptic moment: the pieces, spiked by a temporal gravity, are drawn together into the shapes of three futuristic cars and speed backwards along the road, disappearing into a tunnel.

Two tracks of time exist here: the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end woven together. It is a telling example of the delicacy of this vision. The viewer watches both the cause and the effect, his or her eye rendered prophetic by stitches in time. Is it possible that some comment is being made on the endless repetition, the never-ending cycle of speed that makes up racing games? The games themselves are particularly well suited to the subtle establishing of phantom narratives.

The race is all; one follows the track to its inevitable conclusion in a fierce trajectory of fate. There is a scary purity to the contest, a streamlined dream of victory parades and the fascist aesthetics of pageantry on a monumental scale. This world of motion hides a story in every corner.

Who are the drivers of these spectacular vehicles, hidden within the metal womb? Are they enacting some secret ritual? (“His hands explored the worn fabric of the seat, marking...a cryptic diagram: some astrological sign or road intersection”). What is the race? Is it a drama repeated forever in-between the towers of an abandoned city whose veins are filled with the blurred deja vu of passing cars? Interestingly, for the racing scenes, the creators chose to eschew the typical blue/gray color scheme of sci-fi design in favor of a more autumnal palette. Browns, oranges, yellows and blacks seem to emphasize the rusty age of this place. There is an apocalyptic edge appropriate to these dying colors.

The viewer has witnessed both the destruction and resurrection of three of the racing vehicles. The race, it seems, is a terminal one and yet also regenerative. It’s a wonderfully reflexive moment. During the game, the player will be destroyed countless times only to rise again and be given the chance to continue. Death means nothing here in this dream of the future, as indeed it never means anything in video games. This is not a profound philosophical insight, but rather a charming way of commenting on an established truth. This is not the end however. After the race sequence, the logos of the different companies who built the competing crafts appear in a montage of advertisements.

It is a very brief bit, a series of flashing wheels, arrows and block letters coming together and breaking apart while in the background we hear the crackling, accelerated droning of the soundtrack, the pausing of some monolithic machine. The sequence is rather beautiful, a hypnotizing combination of pastel colors and creepily cheerful images, like a “get well soon” card given out by a computer. Yet there is something more disturbing about it than the design; in a way, it is a numbing reevaluation of the race we have just seen. This is a world of advertisers, a deadened place of colors, signs and symbols. Perhaps there is nothing at stake, only endless ritual: a designer's republic indeed.

In the end, the cinematics of Wipeout 3 are relatively simple ones (narratively speaking), as befits the game itself, yet they are not brain dead. Beautiful and oddly haunting from a visual perspective, the piece also magically skirts that line between meaning and abstraction. The result is a dreamlike mediation on the little movements and fragmentary glimpses, the subtlety that seems to promise so much more.

- Joshua Vasquez is the resident film critic here at loonygames. He also writes for the Internet film site Matinee Magazine.

 

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